Sometimes, about once a month, Michelle Poage-Oldroyd takes the afternoon off from work and goes to AnnSandra.
“Whenever I go there, it’s a fun day,” she said. “It’s like seeing old friends.”
The shop, which specializes in fine china, crystal and other giftware, has built a loyal following in its 34 years. Tucked away in a strip center in Annandale alongside Popeye’s Chicken and Pep Boys, it is an unlikely location for a store with shelves full of Waterford crystal and Tumi luggage. But customers manage to find the store anyway, and they come from all over Virginia and Maryland. AnnSandra also has a growing shipping operation that sends packages around the country.
Business has been so brisk that this spring, the store more than doubled its space to 7,000 square feet.
“We started small,” said Sandi Davidson, 61, who opened AnnSandra in 1980. “I never took out a bank loan. We just added products as we could.”
AnnSandra began as a designer handbag store. Davidson slowly added household gifts such as vases and picture frames. By 1991, she got rid of bags altogether, focusing instead on dinnerware.
“Through the years, we could see that we were running out of space,” she said. “We didn’t know we were going to be in the tabletop business, but that’s what our customers were asking for.”
Among the items currently on the store’s shelves: Reed & Barton music boxes, Villeroy & Bock soup toureens, pashmina shawls and wooden rocking horses. Many of the pieces are marked down 20 to 40 percent, which Davidson says is possible because of her long-standing relationships with the manufacturing companies.
Davidson would not disclose sales or profits figures, but said business has more than doubled in the past five years. The store, which started with four employees and about 30 lines of housewares, has grown to include 12 staffers and hundreds of brands.
“Even during the recession, people still had birthdays, they still got married,” Davidson said. “The UPS delivery guy would come and say, ‘You’re the only one we’re still delivering boxes to.’”
In recent years, AnnSandra has expanded its bridal registry business and begun hosting weekly events, such as artist signings, food tastings and engraving parties. Employees also keep track of customer requests, adding items such as Vera Bradley handbags and Jonathan Adler vases, to keep up with demand.
“When a customer comes in and asks for a particular item, we listen carefully,” said Fred Carey, a 23-year employee. “If there’s an item they like that we don’t carry, we’ll add it.”
Beth Albright, who lives in Arlington, has been shopping at AnnSandra for 25 years. All three of her sons and their wives registered at the store for their wedding.
“I’ve gotten a lot of things there: Waterford lamps, Vera Bradley bags, Tumi luggage, wooden rocking horses,” said Albright, who stopped by last week. “Now that I think about it, I really am a good customer.”
AnnSandra keeps a database of every item a customer has purchased, so buying a replacement dinner plate or a matching throw pillow is easy. The store also offers gift wrapping — topped with a ribbon bow that has garnered its own cult following. (Customers have been known to use the store’s bows as wedding decorations. Photos of dogs with bows, babies with bows and bouquets of bows hang on a corkboard in the back of the shop.)
“The bows are just beautiful,” said Poage-Oldroyd, a 20-year customer. “I’ve been to wedding showers where we’ve all bought a lot of different things from AnnSandra, and it’s such a pretty table filled with bows.”
Davidson, who got her start at 16 working for the now-defunct department store Garfinckel’s, comes from a long line of shop owners. Her father owns the shopping center that houses AnnSandra, and her brother oversees the party store next door. Davidson’s daughter, Tracy, recently moved back from New York to help with marketing at AnnSandra, and her mother stops by every Tuesday to help with paperwork.
“It’s the type of special store you can’t find today,” said Poage-Oldroyd, who lives in Boyds. “Years ago, there were a couple of shops like this in Bethesda. There just aren’t anymore.”